While all mandatory truck driver drug testing is conducted through urinalysis, that may soon change to include testing of oral fluids (saliva) or hair clippings. And that could make it much harder for even occasional users to hide their habit from trucking fleets.

Since federal drug testing of truck drivers began in 1991, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) set the technical protocols for drug tests. Recently, SAMHSA completed technical standards for the use of oral fluids and hair samples in DOT drug testing.

Individual DOT agencies, including FMCSA, now need to approve use of oral fluids in DOT drug tests through rulemaking. That rulemaking would determine the process such as: who can collect the oral fluids and under what conditions, required training, and sample retention. Of course, the rulemaking would also set the effective date for use of oral fluids in FMCSA drug tests. No announcement yet from FMCSA on when to expect the oral fluid rulemaking.

Why the push for different drug testing of truck drivers?

Collecting an oral fluids sample is easier and far less intrusive than obtaining a urine sample. And oral fluids samples are less likely to be faked or contaminated because technicians can collect them in an open setting such as an examination room or even the side of the road. That means sample collection at roadside following a crash, reducing the cost, time delay and complications of sending a driver to a clinic for a urine sample.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) now has the SAMHSA technical standards for hair testing under review. Agency rulemaking for hair testing standards can begin after OMB approval and any required adjustments are complete. When approved, employers and federal regulators would look forward to an extremely powerful tool in ferreting out even casual drug users. Urinalysis commonly reveals the presence of drugs or alcohol used in the past one to three days. Hair samples, by contrast, can detect repeated drug use in the past 90 days.

What impact might hair testing have in the trucking industry?

Several motor carriers already use hair testing, in addition to the mandated urine tests, because of the accuracy in detecting past drug use. However, those carriers do so at additional expense. And until FMCSA rulemaking allows hair testing, they cannot legally share the test results with other employers or with the FMCSA Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse.

The University of Central Arkansas studied the general impact hair testing could have on trucking. Pairing urine and hair test results for 151,662 truck driver applicants, the study found that 949 (0.6%) of the applicants failed the urine test, while 12,824 (8.5%) either failed or refused to submit to a hair test. In other words, the hair test failure rate was more than 14 times higher than the urine test failure rate. Simply put, hair testing will likely reveal large amounts of currently undetected drug use.

Why FMCSA looks to expand truck driver drug testing

Expansion of truck driver drug testing conforms with the significant strides of the FMCSA to strengthen drug and alcohol (controlled substances) testing for “safety-sensitive” positions. Specifically, FMCSA has:

Will oral fluids and hair testing spell the end to controlled substance abuse in trucking? No, but added testing methodologies take another step toward improved highway safety.